Trinidad and Tobago Trip Report

March 18-27, 2000

Mike and Cindy Fahay, Locust, New Jersey

Frequent Reference to:

This was our third birding trip to T&T. Trinidad and Tobago are both wonderful places to spend time, birding and otherwise. My wife and I prefer to go on these trips unguided, do the necessary research, and find birds on our own. Probably because of this habit, we always seem to leave a few species behind, and the omission of those species on our trip lists provides a great excuse for returning to our favorite birding places. We find the warnings about crime in Trinidad to be largely rubbish, and have never taken more precautions while birding there than we do here in the states. Common sense works well. The Trinis we've encountered are friendly, eager to help us find our way to hard-to-find places, and over-all seem to be happy-go-lucky people with a lot of positive energy. I'll not repeat here what you've already heard about Asa Wright in the Northern Range of Trinidad. It's a fabulous place, and you owe yourselves the luxury of birding there. Not to be missed on one of their outings, is sitting in a rowboat, sipping rum punches and eating cookies while hundreds of scarlet ibises float into their night roosts. For us, who are used to roughing it on birding trips, it was a decadent pleasure we owed ourselves, and you do too. Their naturalists are amazingly well-trained and are very affable folks to be with in the field. And the food is fabulous. Go there.

We spent three days in and around Nariva Swamp on this trip and found a very nice, inexpensive guest house from which to operate in Mayaro (actually down the road a piece in the St. Margaret Region). It's called Azee's (phone: 868 630-4619). The rooms are inexpensive, comfortable and clean, a maid will do your laundry for a small fee, and the food was great. Because Murphy's mileage markers are a bit off in this region, we recalculated his birding spots in reverse, starting at the steel bridge (incidentally, no longer in use) in the small fishing village of Ortoire (at the mouth of the Ortoire River) as the zero point. Proceeding north from there along the beach road, you only need to know that the road at 2.5 km is the left turn you want to take to get into the "Melon Patch", where you'll find lots to keep your birding attention. There will probably be a guy selling coconut milk at the junction of this road and the main beach road. Red-bellied macaws are almost automatic here at dusk, although we would argue with the "hundreds" figure we've seen thrown around. Incidentally, Azee's is 12 km south of the Ortoire River steel bridge, on the road that parallels the beach. A brief road trip south from Azee's will put you in good country for pearl kites. Watch the wires.

My focus in this report will be on only two spots, the Heights of Aripo and the remote village of Gran Riviere. I agree with several others who have complained about details in Murphy's guidebook. It does need updating and correcting. My wife and I prefer to be walking a rainforest trace nailing birds to sitting in a rental car trying to match the written descriptions with missing landmarks, or frustrated by an odometer that apparently measures in units other than those used by Murphy. Things change rather quickly in the tropics. Traces become overgrown, ownership and their landmark signs are replaced, "Private Property" signs spring up intended to keep out loggers and squatters, but not necessarily you, the birder, and finally, road markers that used to mark kilometers are now being replaced by orange and black stones indicating miles. Having said that, the Murphy book is still indispensable as a source of information, at least as a starting point. Get it and use it. And write to the author, compliment him profusely, and suggest that he update details for a revised edition.

We would suggest that you skip all the stops mentioned in Murphy's chapter on the Heights of Aripo, and instead proceed directly to the Dandrade Trace parking spot. The earlier in the day you get there, the better. This is a major reason to skip the lower stops, which will be hard to find anyway. The Dandrade Trace wanders for 15 km (apparently...we didn't make it to the end) through excellent rainforest habitat, with several stretches providing a high canopy combined with a thick growth on the forest floor. The intervening bare trunks provide ample opportunities to spot woodcreepers and other hard-to-find species. You can expect no automobile traffic on this trace. After returning to your car, with a lengthy list of birds, you can easily figure out the other places of interest on your trip back down the mountain toward the Eastern Main Road. The water cress ponds are easy to find, as are the numerous pull-outs along the way. Incidentally, this trip will also produce a lot of raptors, mostly flying, rarely perched. Identifying them based on ffrench's field guide will be tough. We recommend xeroxing the black & white raptors in flight plates from the Guide to Birds of Venezuela, and carrying them tucked into the back of your ffrench's. In fact, we carried along our copy of the de Schauensee & Phelps field guide and consulted it often. For many species, their plates are clearly superior to those in ffrench.

The real surprise for us was finding a spot not mentioned in Murphy's book, containing habitats not well-described in the ffrench field guide's preliminary chapters. We went to Gran Riviere, in the northeast corner of Trinidad, on the advice of a friend we had met in Tobago on our first trip in 1997. She told us about a small hotel there, where nesting loggerhead turtles come up on the beach directly in front of the veranda. Sounded good, although she was not a birder and was vague on birding opportunities in the region. We spent three days there, found lots of birds, and had an extremely relaxing time, with great food an added bonus. The hotel is the Mt. Plaisir Hotel (website:; e-mail: run by Piero, a retired (for the time being) photo-journalist from Italy. Our room was awesome, very comfortable, very Caribbean, and reminiscent of a tree house. The food is simple, but elegantly prepared and wonderful. We didn't drive there (a 2-hour trip from Piarco Airport), instead returned our rental car and let the Mt. Plaisir folks pick us up in their van. The transport fee was $50.00 US one way, which included both of us. We liked this option as it allowed us more opportunity to check out the villages, scenery, and birds along the way. There is also a guest house in Gran Riviere, upstairs from the small storefront at the main intersection. We don't have details on this spartan spot, but doubt seriously that you need a reservation to stay there.

The village of Gran Riviere is situated at the foot of the Northern Range's rainforest (facing north), and between the mouths of two rivers. It is very nearly at the end of the road...literally, for there is no connection between Blanchisseusse and Matelot, except for a hiking trail (which we also spent a day exploring...from the Blanchisseuse end going east). Gran Riviere has a small pocket beach on Gran Riviere Bay, bracketed by rocky headlands (great snorkeling). Behind the village is a sizable cultivated area, in a very small valley before the rainforest ascent begins. The bird opportunities, therefore, include marine species, freshwater birds including white-winged swallows and kingfishers, and a wide spectrum of rainforest and lowlands landbirds. The birding is pretty good around town and on the hotel grounds. But we spent two full days walking from the main corner of town, through the very productive cultivated area along Montevideo Trace, then turning right onto the Esperanza Trace through lush rainforest, winding around and always up, until we detected a noticeable faunal change with altitude. These were all-day hikes, and we carried water and snacks. Intermittent showers on those two days kept the birds active throughout the day. Don't be in too much of a hurry to get through the cultivated area (about 20 acres?). It's full of good stuff, including antbirds, woodpeckers, flycatchers, many hummingbirds, including all the hermits, white-necked jacobin and tufted coquette, and with raptors, woodpeckers, swifts and parrots cruising by overhead. Once on the Esperanza Trace, you will soon begin an upward climb through very productive rainforest, only occasionally broken by small banana cultivations. About a mile up the trail, we found a joint oropendola-cacique colony in a tall mora tree, and were able to record the bedlam on our tape recorder. On another walk, you might want to stay on Montevideo Trace another quarter mile or so past the Esperanza Trace, until you come to a house in a clearing on a hilltop, where a self-appointed Pawi Warden will collect a few TTs from you and show you Trinidad piping guans in the trees surrounding his property. While there, check out the ground under the nutmeg trees and pick up a few to take home. Freshly ground nutmeg is absolutely essential to a proper rum-punch. We found three piping guans on our own along the small footpath that encircles this hilltop, along with all three trogons and several antbirds.

Despite a few torrential rainstorms while we were there, in two days plus a morning of birding, we racked up a total of 89 species in the vicinity of Gran Riviere, including many new ones for us. Highlights included all three trogons, Trinidad piping guan, 9 hummingbirds including tufted coquette, antbirds (silvered antbird, white-bellied antbird, black-faced antthrush, barred and great antshrikes, white flanked antwren), 12 flycatchers (including white-throated spadebill, piratic flycatcher, nesting boat-billed flycatchers, nesting streaked flycatchers), abundant golden-headed manakins, fewer white-chinned manakins, abundant cocoa and bare-eyed thrushes, all of the honeycreepers and blue dacnis, and more Trinidad euphonias than we have found anywhere else. We heard but could not find black-tailed tityras (a species we always seem to leave behind) and admit that the numbers of raptors (5) and tanagers (5) were low in this area. We also might have spent more time flushing and checking on all the seedeaters and grassquits in the cultivated areas and near town. Trapping of song-birds does occur in this area (as it does everywhere in Trinidad), but perhaps at a lower rate, judging from the large numbers of these birds around Gran Riviere. And of course there was the thrill of watching 12 leatherback turtles depositing eggs on the beach in front of our room, plus a thirteenth at dawn one morning, which made our stay the more memorable as a natural history 'event'. Should you want a guide to show you the specialty plants of the rainforest, a local expert (Cyril) is available at the hotel to show you around. He also has a boat he can use to take you to remote beaches along the north coast. You might also check out Gordon Trace (marked by a "street sign"), which pokes its way into the mountains along side a small creek just west of town, over an incredibly decrepit wooden bridge. We only birded the first mile or so, but it looked very promising. The Mt. Plaisir Hotel is definitely already included in our next itinerary, since every hike we took this time produced more that we hadn't seen. We're sure our next trip will be no different.